Lucia’s Heart of Darkness
“When we remember that we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.” – Mark Twain, Notebook, 1898
Readers in early nineteenth-century Europe loved a good yarn; a plot rich with violence and scandal, particularly if shaded with romance and a moral undertone, it would be an all-but-guaranteed best seller. No one gave them what they wanted quite so well as the Scottish novelist, Sir Walter Scott.
By 1819, Scott had already racked up international bestsellers with The Lady of the Lake, Waverley, and Rob Roy; later that same year, he would score his greatest literary hit by turning to Medieval England for Ivanhoe. But, before Ivanhoe, he drew again on the rugged history and landscape of his native Scotland, setting a tone both nostalgic and passionate for The Bride of Lammermoor:
In the gorge of a pass or mountain glen, ascending from the fertile plains of East Lothian, there stood in former times an extensive castle, of which only the ruins are now visible. Its ancient proprietors were a race of powerful and warlike carons, who bore the same name with the castle itself, which was Ravenswood.
Loosely inspired by a true incident from the late seventeenth century involving an unhappy bride in an aristocratic Scottish family, The Bride of Lammermoor added another line to Scott’s already impressive résumé, and was soon thrilling novel-readers, both in English and in translation across the Continent. In our time, bestselling novels inevitably become movies; in nineteenth-century Europe, they became operas, and The Bride of Lammermoor was no exception. Within fifteen years of its initial publication, now-forgotten composers produced now-forgotten operas based on the novel in Paris, Warsaw, Copenhagen, and Padua.
But it was in 1835, three years after Scott’s death, that this hoary tale of betrayal and madness in the highlands met a composer worthy of the challenge and opportunities it presented. When Gaetano Donizetti took up the sad case of Lucy of the Lammermoors, the bel canto tradition, in which beautiful, florid singing was the central aspect, combined with the genius of a composer particularly skilled in that style led to the creation of a masterpiece that both epitomizes and transcends its own time.
Having “pulled himself by his own bootstraps” out of childhood poverty in Bergamo, Donizetti had established himself as a composer of numerous popular successes before creating his first internationally recognized masterpiece Anna Bolena at the age of 32 in 1830. Afflicted with severe bipolar disorder and syphilis, he was destined to die less than two decades later, insane and dependent on the support of his admirers. In 1835, however, still riding the crest of fame in Italy and France, and producing—on average—an astounding five new operas every year, Donizetti was commissioned by the theater of San Carlo in Naples to create something riveting. He quickly turned his attention to The Bride of Lammermoor.
Faced with censors and nervous local rulers apt to see treasonous inferences behind every twist of the plot (particularly if the plot involved a king), the composer deliberately chose a well-known novel free of references to royalty, but one that also held the possibility of intensely dramatic character development; writing, at the time, that he wanted to deal, in his operas, with “love . . . violent love.” The plot of Scott’s novel, albeit somewhat revised for the operatic stage, provided plenty.
Donizetti probably began work on Lucia di Lammermoor in May of 1835 and completed it in August, ready for a late September premiere—a rapid-fire gestation, typical of Donizetti and other composers of the day. The crowd roared its approval on opening night and in subsequent early performances. Opera lovers in Paris and London saw and heard the piece in ensuing seasons—Donizetti even arranged a revision tailored particularly to the French theater—and New Orleans and New York witnessed productions as early as 1841 and 1843, respectively. As the decades passed, and while much of the rest of the late bel canto repertoire faded from fashion under successive waves of Wagner, on the one hand, and late romantic verismo on the other; Lucia remained firmly in the repertoire, with the famous “mad scene” in Act III serving as a crowd-pleasing tour de force for that ever-present, but exclusive, coterie of sopranos who could actually pull it off.
An open mind and open ears reveal, however, that Lucia is much more than just one big aria surrounded by a superfluous opera. Lucia does not suddenly go mad on her wedding night, for instance; her descent into insanity is inherent from the very beginning. (I’ve talked to a few performers and directors through the years who are, indeed, open to the possibility that the relationship between Lucia and her brother Enrico is incestuous; though, as in real life, that dysfunction—if true—remains firmly offstage: both hidden and unspoken.) Regardless of the cause, the “mad scene” is neither contrived nor avoidable.
Likewise, the extended denouement—an entire scene following the climactic moment—can seem odd to an audience used to a quick wrap-up in the manner of Carmen or Salome. But Donizetti and his librettist allow the horror of Lucia’s madness to linger; the story is not yet done. After the scene ends, we must join Edgardo in the cemetery and, though certain of the tragic outcome, await the news that Lucia, whom we last saw doomed but still alive, is now dead. Rarely in opera does the audience find itself so completely pulled into the viewpoint of a character—in this case, Edgardo—as in the final scene of Lucia.
Among the few moments in the entire operatic repertoire that rival Edgardo’s final aria in terms of capturing the audience, however, is the immediately preceding “mad scene” itself. Donizetti believed that music had the power to express extreme emotion; unlike the later romantics, he did not believe that in order to do so, he needed the assistance of a massive orchestra playing millions of notes. Hearkening to an earlier era, Donizetti fell back on simple, time-honored resources, and, in the process, reached into the listener to present a horrific glimpse into the world of a madwoman. Wagner and his disciples succeed in awing their listeners with oceanic waves of sound and cavernous effects; Puccini tugs at the emotions with constantly shifting harmonies. But Donizetti achieves an equally impressive effect through traditional harmonic and melodic craftsmanship, sung by one skillful singer, and an orchestra reduced, for the moment, to a pair of flutes. There’s more to Lucia di Lammermoor than just the “mad scene,” and there’s more to the “mad scene” than is often supposed.
Wayne Lee Gay currently focuses on writing fiction while teaching in the English Department at the University of North Texas; a past finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, he is the winner of the 2010 Frank O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and the 2011 David Saunders Award for Creative Nonfiction, and his work appears in the fiction anthology, Best Gay Stories of 2011. A nonpaid, volunteer contributor to the Dallas Opera program book, he contributes reviews of opera and concert music regularly to frontrow.dmagazine.com.